antipaucity

fighting the lack of good ideas

kingmakers by karl ernest meyer and shareen blair brysac

Karl Ernest Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac present what should be a fascinating history of the modern Middle East in their recent book Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East.

I have been interested in Middle Eastern history (ancient and modern) for many years, and so was excited to see this book as I was browsing my local library recently. A couple years ago I read Gideon’s Spies. And I have read various articles, books, and treatises that either focus on the Middle East, or reference it in less-than-passing ways over the years.

Sadly, like so many other books I’ve read in the recent past, Kingmakers stays too academic to read comfortably. I couldn’t get through more than a couple chapters before deciding I would learn more about Middle Eastern history from Al Jazeera and Wikipedia than from this book.

why nations fail by daron acemoglu and james a robinson

I first came across Why Nations Fail at my local Half Price Books. After seeing it on the shelves a couple times, but still being unsure about whether I really wanted to read it or not, I reserved it at my local library.

Now I wish I had bought it (and likely will) – Daron Acemoglu & James A Robinson, while sometimes slipping into an academic, journalistic tone, present a fantastic historical, economic, cultural, and international view into the similarities, and differences, of “national” failures around the world over the last several centuries.

They spend a great deal of time expounding on the differences of countries that succeed and those that don’t – and offer insights into how failing nations could, potentially, turn themselves around.

Interestingly, the factors that play-into national success and failure are similar throughout history – critical junctures, inclusive/pluralistic political and economic environments vs extractive/exclusive political and economic structures, empowered citizenries, overbearing rulers, literacy, economic incentives (positive and negative), etc.

The Iron Law of Oligarchy:

the overthrow of a regime presiding over extractive institutions heralds the arrival of a new set of masters to exploit the same set of pernicious extractive institutions (p366)

My recommendation? Buy it. Read it. Share it. The background and conclusions this book presents and reaches should be required reading for anyone who wants to see their nation “do better” – politicians, businessmen, citizens, NGOs: all would benefit from applying what is demonstrated in this excellent work.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: 4.5/5
  • Historicity: 5/5
  • Educational value 4.5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5

to engineer is human by henry petroski

I’ve ogled To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski for several years. So when I saw it at a local used book store for just a couple dollars, I snagged a copy.

Along with some of his other works, such as The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, I’ve found the titles interesting, and the back covers alluring.

Sadly, while the book isn’t bad in and of itself, Petroski’s writing sounds like that of his profession – a professor. His style, while informative, carries the dryness associated with being in academia far too long.

Henry obviously knows a lot about engineering – but his delivery is too formal. Compared to works such as 1421 by Gavin Menzies (review), To Engineer is Human sounds like a graduate thesis. Maybe that was the author’s goal – if it was, he accomplished it.

If it was to make something normal folks would like and want to read, I think he failed miserably.

automation {gp}

The way people moved up the ladder in IT during my early days (starting in 1975) was to take on new projects that allowed them time to master the new software and become the local expert. As you became the local expert on many new software products, management became very comfortable giving you more and more of these new software projects. Now, at this critical time you needed to train your replacement for some of the software that you had become the local expert because you could not maintain forward momentum with the tremendous drag caused by being the local expert for so many software offerings. Of course, you would get management to agree to lighten your workload because your current workload didn’t allow you to work on their next “Pet” project (after all you are now their go to guy). Also, you would push to give up the software that was either too time consuming and/or not part of your future automation plans. If you didn’t give up something (holding onto knowledge is your power trip), you would fail to meet management’s expectations and someone else would get the new projects and your plans would stall (cut off from new software knowledge and isolated).

When you start to automate, you automate your existing manual processes usually by using a wrapper because it is the fastest way of showing progress. However, after demonstrating that you can automate longstanding processes, you now have the evidence to convince management to allow you to automate your next project (beginning to end) because you will become the local expert not only on the new software but also on the automation software. After successfully completing the automation beginning to end, you are in a position to push for the policy that states that all new software/applications will be automated as part of its installation/configuration steps. Now, you push for automation friendly software/applications because wrappers will no longer be acceptable automation options.

The philosophy of automation document was compiled during IBM user group meetings from around 1987 through 1989 when automation was a very hot topic.

The Philosophy of Automation

Automation is not a technical problem it is a people problem.

When you initially automate, you convert your process flow documents into executable code that consistently runs on a prearranged schedule, or through a monitor, or an error message. These executable processes enforce your process rules every time.

You cannot automate processes that are all over the place.

When you automate your processes they will be transformed.

Because you automate your processes automation never ends

Automate as close to the source as possible.

Problems with automated processes occur infrequently but are more difficult to solve than manual processes.

The combining of problem, change, and asset management with automated process management and root cause analysis, improves quality and allows you to consistently meet your service levels.

All automation code is throwaway code.

Automation is very exciting

Automation is very rewarding.

Everyone is on the automation team


Guest Post from one of my colleagues, Dave B

krakatoa: the day the world exploded, august 27 1883 by simon winchester

I have been interested in volcanoes for a long time. I first wrote about them for a college essay in 1999, but my attraction to them began far earlier. Most likely it was triggered by hearing from my mom that her wedding day was the first time she’d ever really had allergies – just 6 days after Mt St Helens exploded, the cloud o’ crud had wafted its way across the North American Continent, and helped trigger lots of folks’ allergies, including my mom’s.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that read, “Save The Volcanoes!”

It was quite the conversation starter. (And short satirical essay fodder.)

My dad thought it would be brilliant to dump most of our trash into Kīlauea or Mauna Loa – what better place to incinerate garbage than a pool of liquid rock? (Side benefit: no need to use fuel to burn it, just to transport it!)

I remember Pinatubo exploding in 1991. It ejected about 2.4 cubic miles of crud into the atmosphere. That was 10x more than Mt St Helens burped.

But only half of what Krakatau did in 1883. Krakatoa (the spelling forever etched in world memory, through the typo of a Times of London editor) chucked about 6 cubic miles. It is claimed that it is the loudest sound ever recorded in modern history, and the air-borne pressure wave of the explosion was measured around the world on barographs, as many as 7 times.

(Tambora in 1815 was even bigger (estimated at up to 38 cubic miles), but it was in a relatively unknown (to “modern man”) part of the world, and certainly did not capture the attention of the world they way Krakatoa did 68 years later after the advent of near-instant global communication (the telegraph) and pop culture’s attention to “science”.)

It was this eruption that helped set the stage for a variety of modern scientific fields of inquiry and practice, including a better understanding of geology, meteorology (the beginnings of figuring out the jet stream), and plate tectonics (though not formally accepted globally until after WWII).

Simon Winchester did a masterful job in his book, Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded, August 27 1883. It is one of the few books I have read as an adult in which my reading was slowed due to vocabulary. Winchester’s writing showcases his vast vocabulary, his scientific bent, his Oxford education, and his deep interest in his topic. But he manages to use an extensive lexicon without ever appearing to talk down to his audience – an exceptional gift. He also writes in a very precise manner: every word he uses feels like he meant for it to be there because it truly describes what he wants to say the best.

I take a few minor issues with his worldview, because I do believe in a literal Creation Week 6000-12000 years ago, but excepting his ongoing references to millions and billions of years, I could find nothing in the book to complain about.

Krakatoa provides a deep history of the Indonesian region, both geologically and politically (starting, on the latter, with the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (or Dutch East India Company)) takeover of Portuguese influence in the region) and spans far and wide through a variety of then-unrelated sciences which presciently foreshadowed modern geologic, biologic, meteorologic – even astronomic – advances.

If you are at all intrigued by history, geology, volcanoes, or disaster, you should read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

I can’t wait to read several of his other works.

the art of the essay

Paul Graham is one of my favorite essayists. The following are some excerpts from his excellent 2004 essay, “The Age of the Essay“.

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that’s what the professor is interested in.

The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it.

Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it’s not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It’s not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can’t change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion– uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell.

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them.

Questions aren’t enough. An essay has to come up with answers. They don’t always, of course. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere…An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn’t do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.

The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.

So what’s interesting? For me, interesting means surprise. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. A button that looks like it will make a machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum surprise.

I found the best way to get information … was to ask what surprised them. How was the place different from what they expected? This is an extremely useful question. You can ask it of the most unobservant people, and it will extract information they didn’t even know they were recording.

[T]he ability to ferret out the unexpected must not merely be an inborn one. It must be something you can learn. How do you learn it?

To some extent it’s like learning history. When you first read history, it’s just a whirl of names and dates. Nothing seems to stick. But the more you learn, the more hooks you have for new facts to stick onto– which means you accumulate knowledge at what’s colloquially called an exponential rate. Once you remember that Normans conquered England in 1066, it will catch your attention when you hear that other Normans conquered southern Italy at about the same time. Which will make you wonder about Normandy, and take note when a third book mentions that Normans were not, like most of what is now called France, tribes that flowed in as the Roman empire collapsed, but Vikings (norman = north man) who arrived four centuries later in 911. Which makes it easier to remember that Dublin was also established by Vikings in the 840s. Etc, etc squared.

There are an infinite number of questions. How do you find the fruitful ones?

I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I’ve written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

Whatever you study, include history– but social and economic history, not political history. History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.

Gradualness is very powerful. And that power can be used for constructive purposes too: just as you can trick yourself into looking like a freak, you can trick yourself into creating something so grand that you would never have dared to plan such a thing. Indeed, this is just how most good software gets created.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.

atlas of the year 1000 by john man

It was with great excitement I reserved Atlas of the Year 1000 from my local library.

John Man’s work did not disappoint (excluding the humorous typo of “a a” when only the single article use was intended).

Starting with the Americas, then working Eastward to Europe, the Islamic region, and Asia before moving back west but south to Africa and then finally to Oceania, Atlas of the Year 1000 provides a fantastic glimpse of the state of the world a millennium ago ± 50 years.

From the Introduction on the significance of the year 1000:

[B]y pure coincidence, the year 1000, or thereabouts, marked the first time in human history that it was possible to pass an object, or a message, right around the world. This had, of course, been almost possible for a long time. Although no culture knew what the world looked like, and few had any idea of its size, almost every habitable region had been peopled for thousands of years, and almost every culture had a neighbour or two. Messages and artefacts had been passed between neighbours, across continents and between continents. Such messages – pottery styles, agricultural techniques, new technologies, religions – are the stuff of cultural diffusion.

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is looking for what avenue of historical inquiry they wish to follow next, or to be reminded that nothing happens in isolation – as isolated as some of these cultures were from each other, there were myriad other cultures operating at the same time around the world.